Despite our supercomputers being faster now than they’ve ever been, the holy grail of the IT industry has always been the invention of quantum computers. These did away with the traditional bits of the computers that we see today, and instead use qubits. Qubits didn’t have to be a 1 or 0 like bits, and instead could be both, or anything in between.
We’ve known about qubits for decades, but while there have been many quantum computers built, they’ve never achieved their full potential of being more powerful than traditional computers. That is until yesterday’s announcement by Google, which claims that for the first time ever, a quantum computer has not only outperformed one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, but it did it by leaps and bounds.
The term for achieving this feat is known as quantum supremacy, and it’s a title that many companies in the IT industry have been clamouring for. Microsoft, IBM and Google have all been in a race to the finish line, and it would appear that Google got there first, but does the company’s claims hold up to scrutiny?
Last month, Google AI Quantum and NASA published a paper that went relatively unnoticed called Quantum supremacy using a programmable superconducting processor. This paper was subsequently removed from NASA and was then published in Nature, a British multidisciplinary scientific journal, on October 23, 2019.
In the paper, Google claimed that a team led by John Martinis, an experimental physicist at the University of California, had managed to carry out an incredibly complex calculation that took Google’s quantum computer just 200 seconds to complete. Google claims that a regular computer would take 10,000 years to complete a similar calculation.
If Google’s claims hold up, it would be indisputable that the company has achieved quantum supremacy. While researchers continue to tweak classic computers to make them more efficient, there’s no way a classic computer is going to go from 10,000 years to 200 seconds in the future.
The possibilities of quantum computing
Of course, Google’s achievement is for a very narrow use case right now, although it does prove that quantum mechanics works exactly as predicted when it comes to tackling a difficult problem. This is especially useful when it comes to developing drugs or getting more answers out of our universe, all problems that even today’s most powerful computers struggle with.
It’s thought that with quantum supremacy, scientific researchers could harness the technology for use cases that we may not have even thought of yet. We all know that quantum computing could revolutionise artificial intelligence, but it also has the possibility to affect everyone’s day-to-day lives. Sure, weather forecasting has become pretty accurate over the last few decades, but quantum computing could blow the forecasting capabilities that we have right now out of the water.
That’s not to mention all the new materials we could invent, the new battery technologies that could be developed, and even the myriad of benefits it could give us in the fight against climate change. So yeah, quantum computing is a pretty big deal.
But did Google actually achieve quantum supremacy?
While Google’s paper appeared in Nature, and therefore has been peer-reviewed, IBM has another paper coming out that seems to put a rain on Google’s parade. According to this yet to be peer reviewed paper, IBM says that it could solve the very same problem as the quantum computer using a different classical method in just two and a half days. Sure, that’s not as impressive as 200 seconds, but it’s certainly better than 10,000 years.
If IBM is correct, Google hasn’t achieved quantum supremacy. Sure, the company has proven a quantum advantage, but that’s not quite the achievement the company was going for. It wants its quantum computer to be the first that cannot possibly be reached by classic technology.
Still, Google would be the first to achieve a quantum advantage, and while its computer is yet to solve problems that are genuinely useful for human society, it’s still a feat worth celebrating.
If you’re interested in Google’s quantum computing breakthrough, check out this video.